5 ways to become a better listener



 When I first started on my path to becoming a professional musician I didn’t realize that being able to listen well was going to be my survival skill.  

I didn’t realize that it didn’t matter how many notes I could play on whichever instrument. 

I didn’t realize that I could make or break a rehearsal or performance by how much I used my listening skills, thereby lengthening or shortening my career. 

Fortunately for me, I learned to listen and listen well. And when I really think of it now, over the years, I have listened more than I have played, and that’s a good thing. I'll repeat that - I have listened more than I have played. Many thanks to my teachers and colleagues for telling me ( No, yelling at me) to "LISTEN!".

How about you?  How many times have you thought about saying it to a colleague or employee: “I wish you would just listen more?”

The problem today is that we are not good listeners. We’re distracted listeners. I’d even go so far as to say that we are probably the worst listeners we have ever been.  

I’ll even argue that we are better smellers than we are listeners because smelling is mostly out of our control.  But listening is like a muscle. We have the ability to exercise it in various capacities but often don’t. 

It seems we are not giving our listening skills a fair chance. In a recent article in Fast Company magazine, the author(s) cited a survey of 3600 professionals from 30 countries and from various levels inside organizations. Almost all of the respondents considered themselves to be good listeners but they also admitted to being distracted and serious multi-taskers, a common occurrence during conference calls where people are also dealing with emails and instant messaging. It’s no wonder things get missed or forgotten.

We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.  Epictetus - Greek Philosopher

Maybe you have been lucky enough to have played a musical instrument, so you have an idea of just how powerful listening can be, and how you can be in control of it. You have likely experienced the focus required to really connect with other people, and you may have the power to weed out distraction.

These are two important skills needed to have a meaningful conversation with someone, and another good reason to keep music in our schools (but I digress).

I used to be a terrible listener. When I think back to why, a lot of it had to do with two things:  1) I was too full of myself; 2) I didn’t really understand that I had to make the effort. 

I was too full of myself in this way: I thought that just because I had put in a lot of time practicing something, and could execute it perfectly on my own, it followed that I could play with other musicians and it would simply sound good. I was wrong. It only sounded good when in context.

I remember one of my first orchestral experiences wherein I had prepared my part well but was stopped by the conductor in rehearsal because I wasn’t making my part fit with the other players. I wasn’t listening.  I was just thinking – “Hey everyone, listen to how great my part sounds. I practiced! I am awesome”.

I didn’t understand that I had to make the effort to listen. If I played without listening, I could not connect with my colleagues.  The moment I listened to them as well as myself, I could make whatever necessary adjustments I needed to bring things together. In order to do that, I had to have an open mind and be very receptive to what I was hearing.

I know you’re in an office and not on a stage or in a rehearsal room but I think it’s the same concept.  You can’t connect with your colleagues unless you’re making the effort. It simply won’t happen. 

While I could list several reasons as to why we don’t listen well I feel it comes down to two things:

1) Too much ego.

2) Not enough effort. 


So what can you do to listen better? 

1) Put down the smart phone. 

Simple, I know, but I had to say it. Imagine you walk into a room wanting to speak to someone and they say “ Sure, wait a sec”, and they put down or silence their phone.  How amazing would that make you feel? These days, there is probably no greater compliment. Highly recommended for meetings and presentations as well.

2) Stop what you are doing and look at the person.  

You’re at your desk working away and someone stops by and interrupts you. (Hopefully they asked if they could talk to you).  If you can’t speak right away, acknowledge them, look at them and tell them when you can give them your full attention. Don’t get into the conversation unless you can be fully present. Otherwise, guess what – you’ll forget about what you said and what they said.

3) Don’t be afraid to take the time to process, then reply.

I used to have a great percussion teacher. I would play for him each week at my lesson.  I was always amazed at the time he took respond to something I had just finished playing for him. I would play my heart out for 10 or more minutes and then there would be silence in the room for what seemed like an eternity.  Really, it was only 15 seconds or so but then, out would come his helpful and incredibly insightful response. He was the best teachers I ever had. Eventually his silences filled me great anticipation because I knew he was taking the time he needed to help me the best way he could.

4) Look for connection.   

I use the word Listen and Connect almost interchangeably.  The best listeners look for connections in their conversations with others and so should you.  They may share that they’ve had similar experiences. However, too many people listen to conversations with one thing in mind: how to “one-up” the other person, with “I’ve done more” or “I’ve done it better” as their motivation.  Guess who you don’t want to hang out with anymore.

5) Practice Listening.  

Yes, I said practice.  Remember I said “Listening” is like a muscle, and you know the saying “use it or lose it”. We are in danger of becoming a society of distracted non-listeners (if we’re not already). Take the time to listen to a favourite piece of music or a podcast or even the radio. I even recommend headphones.  Choose something that doesn’t involve your eyes.  As a matter of fact, choose something that allows you to close your eyes so you can experience what happens in your brain when your ears are doing all the work.  You’ll see what happens to your brain, the images it forms, the ideas that begin to flow.  And if you fall asleep, you probably need to, so don’t sweat it.

You can listen better.

Listening to people is not quite the same as listening to music but you can use your listening experiences with music to help you focus more in meetings and conversations. It can make you more aware of how you can listen better. 

Playing music is even better, if you can get the chance to do that.  My clients (99% non-musicians) are regularly surprised about how much better their listening awareness becomes after they get a chance to experience playing music with others, even on the simple instruments I provide in my workshops.

It’s because playing music with others develops both listening and communication skills and people realize they have control over how they are listening. I like to say it opens their ears.

So why not give it a try? Slow things down and take some time to listen.  It can do wonders for your relationships with others and do wonders for your productivity and for relieving your stress.